Thomas, Laurence (Mordekhai) 1949-

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THOMAS, Laurence (Mordekhai) 1949-


Male. Born August 1, 1949, in Baltimore, MD. Education: University of Maryland, B.A., 1971; University of Pittsburgh, M.A., 1973, Ph.D., 1976.


Office—Syracuse University, 541 Hall of Languages, Syracuse, NY 13244.


Philosopher, educator, and lecturer. University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN, instructor, 1975-76, assistant professor of philosophy, 1977-78; University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA, visiting assistant professor of philosophy, 1976-77; University of Maryland, College Park, assistant professor, 1978-80; University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, associate professor; Oberlin College, Oberlin, OH, member of faculty; University of Rochester, Rochester, NY, professor in departments of philosophy and political science; Syracuse University, Syracuse, NY, professor of philosophy. University of Michigan, visiting scholar, 1994.


American Philosophical Society, American Society for Value Inquiry.


W. E. B. DuBois fellow, Tuskegee Institute, 1973; Mellon fellow, Harvard University, 1978-79; National Endowment for the Humanities award, 1981; Craft scholar, Virginia State University, 1982; National Humanities Center fellow, 1982-83.


Living Morally: A Psychology of Moral Character, Temple University Press (Philadelphia, PA), 1989.

Vessels of Evil: American Slavery and the Holocaust, Temple University Press (Philadelphia, PA), 1993.

(With Michael E. Levin) Sexual Orientation and Human Rights ("Point/Counterpoint" series), Rowman & Littlefield (Lanham, MD), 1999.

Contributor to periodicals.


Philosopher Laurence Thomas's first book is Living Morally: A Psychology of Moral Character. In reviewing the book for CanadianPhilosophical Reviews, Stanley G. Clarke wrote that "the writing is so clear, accessible, and interesting that one could happily recommend it to friends. Nevertheless, it presents a distinctive position by giving a naturalist theory of moral character." Clarke said that the book "takes the position that there is such a thing as human nature which can be given a substantive characterization. Second, it provides descriptions of human life and morality which are not governed by any sort of face/value dichotomy." Clarke added that Thomas "makes significant use of sociobiology."

Ethics contributor Ronald DeSousa wrote that Thomas "builds an elaborate and convincing argument. His aim is to offer a realistic characterization of the role of altruistic motivation in ethics. He argues that altruism—and specifically 'motive altruism' as opposed to merely the 'unwitting altruism,' that might be an indirect consequence of certain kinds of selfishness—has a biological basis, but that it requires the psychological precondition of moral character. In turn, 'social interaction is the thread from which the fabric of moral character is woven.'"

Thomas begins his Vessels of Evil: American Slavery and the Holocaust with a discussion of the nature of evil, then uses examples drawn from the history of American slavery and the Holocaust of World War II. Library Journal reviewer Paul Kaplan called Thomas's treatment of this issue "a readable, even absorbing philosophical examination."

Thomas notes the differences between the two examples of evil. While the Holocaust was mandated by law, the murders committed in Nazi-run concentration camps were kept secret; in contrast, the owning of slaves was not required but was openly engaged in. He also compares numbers, showing that while about six million Jews died during the Holocaust, it is likely that a higher number of blacks—estimated to be between forty and sixty million—died en route to America.

James P. Sterba wrote in Ethics that "nevertheless, Thomas argues that this difference does not show that American slavery was a worse evil than the Holocaust, because the number of deaths is only one dimension of evil. Extinction is yet another, Thomas contends, arguing that the Holocaust threatened Jews with extinction in a way that American slavery never threatened blacks with extinction." For this reason Jewish children and adults were both targeted for extermination. Black children, on the other hand were often allowed to enjoy their childhoods, sometimes with white children, because they were not yet ready to take their places as slaves. "Thomas argues that these differences do not show that the Holocaust was worse than American slavery," said Sterba, "any more than the greater loss of life under American slavery showsit to be worse than the Holocaust."

African American Review writer Howard H. Harriott noted that "in the case of the Holocaust, the Jews were treated as irredeemably evil, and as such were viewed by the Nazis as incapable of moral work and as having no entitlement to basic human rights. It is this that made the Holocaust so morally appalling. What of the telos of chattel slavery? In Thomas's view the slave owners treated blacks as 'moral simpletons.'" This idea implies that these people were able to perform simple work but were unable to take charge of their own lives, a view that has survived to some extent through Western history.

Thomas further poses the question of how it is that blacks as a group have not become prosperous, while Jews have succeeded and excelled. He finds that society does not encourage black success, that the group continues to suffer from racial strife, and that further, blacks do not have a solid sense of who they are. Jews, on the other hand, have strong traditions and religious texts to support their stability.

Harriott noted that Thomas purports that a "dilemma" faced by blacks is that "they may have interest in their general experience of suffering and the legacy of slavery, but collectively this is not sufficient bonding to generate sufficient contributions by individual black persons that will ensure adequate group benefits." Harriott's response to this argument was that "while it is true that none of the proposed solutions to the creation of a narrative is a perfect solution (for instance, one which reconstructs black experience from Christianity and the lives of social heroes such as King, DuBois, Garvey, etc.), these can … be valuable components of a narrative which African Americans can create and integrate with the rest of American values and with the Diaspora experience."

In his review Sterba called Vessels of Evil "an inspiring book." Thomas sees his study as a "small beginning in a dialogue that has not yet taken place," Sterba noted, but in concluding his review stated that "it is far more than that. It is a major contribution to understanding evil through a comparative study of American slavery and the Holocaust."

Thomas and professor of philosophy Michael E. Levin debate in Sexual Orientation and Human Rights, a volume in Rowman & Littlefield's "Point/Counterpoint" series. Levin defends the position of individuals who are not sympathetic toward homosexual claims for rights, saying that the group enjoys the same rights as everyone else. Thomas counters by saying that in a society that protects hate groups, there is the ability to protect homosexuals, and that the Bible should not be called upon as a vehicle for denying those rights.



African American Review, summer, 1996, Howard H. Harriott, review of Vessels of Evil: American Slavery and the Holocaust, p. 283.

Canadian Philosophical Reviews, July, 1990, Stanley G. Clarke, review of Living Morally: A Psychology of Moral Character, pp. 288-291.

Choice, January, 1990, B. Kaplan, review of Living Morally, p. 880.

Ethics, October, 1990, Ronald DeSousa, review of Living Morally, pp. 185-187; January, 1996, James P. Sterba, review of Vessels of Evil, pp. 424-448.

Library Journal, November 15, 1993, Paul Kaplan, review of Vessels of Evil, p. 88.

Philosophical Review, July, 1992, David B. Wong, review of Living Morally, pp. 695-697.

Publishers Weekly, November 22, 1993, review of Vessels of Evil, p. 58.*

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Thomas, Laurence (Mordekhai) 1949-

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